Renewing Language: Eros, Body, Sex & Asceticism as Glorious Words

Feast of St. Anthony the Great

LAST YEAR, at the 8th annual Eighth Day Symposium, we explored the theme of friendship: “Strangers & Society: Cultivating Friendship in a Fractured Age.” I’m convinced friendship is one of the greatest needs of our day. It’s why my priest Fr. Paul O’Callaghan wrote an entire book on the subject: The Feast of Friendship. It’s also why Eighth Day Press published it. If you don’t yet have a copy, you really should get one.

The theme for this year’s Symposium builds on last year. And in terms of engaging our current culture, I think it is even more important: “Eros & the Mystery of God: On the Body, Sex & Asceticism.”

Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware recently suggested that the most important question for Orthodox theology in the 20th century was ecclesiology, i.e., ‘What is the Church?’ While this remains an important theme for the twenty-first century, he goes on to remark:

The key question in Orthodoxy today is not only ‘What is the Church?’, but also and more fundamentally ‘What is the human person?’ What does it imply to be a person-in-relation according to the image of God the Holy Trinity? What does it mean to attain ‘deification’ through incorporation into Christ? Obviously the two questions, ‘What is the Church?’ and ‘What is the human person?’ are intimately linked: for it is only within the Church that human persons become authentically themselves.

I wholeheartedly agree with Metr. Kallistos. The nature of human personhood is the single most important question the world is wrestling with today. It is therefore also the most vital question for all Christians to be considering. We must contemplate what it means to have been created male and female, to have been made in the image of God, to have been called to grow in the likeness to God, or in Pauline language, to be transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18), or in Petrine language, to participate in the very nature of God (1 Pet. 1:4).

We have a mission to our fallen world. It’s a biblical mandate. I believe it is our responsibility to both articulate and demonstrate through our lives the glorious vision of what it means to be human creatures of God, male and female. G. K. Chesterton captures this responsibility best in a book that provoked our 2nd annual Symposium back in 2012:

The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

Eros. Body. Sex. Asceticism. These words are pregnant with negative connotations. This is unfortunate. Each and every one of them should intimate something positive, even glorious. But we as Christians have failed to pass down the traditional biblical understanding of these words, the glorious and divine nature of each one of them. We have failed miserably at asking what is right. We’ve failed to demonstrate the glory of what it means to be human, whether married or celibate. I hope the Symposium this weekend, and the content in this issue of Synaxis, will make a humble contribution to redeeming these words, to restoring the glorious vision of what it means to be human.

So, taking our cue from Metr. Kallistos—and from Fr. Paul who coined this year’s main theme—we’ve organized a stellar line-up of presenters to explore the human person within the context of those four key words: eros, body, sex, and asceticism.

I must admit that I was exceedingly thrilled when I began receiving the lecture titles from our speakers. Many of them are looking back to the Fathers as a resource for addressing these issues. And as so many of you already know, I believe this is THE key to cultural renewal. I’m convinced it’s our only hope for successfully navigating the murky waters of our secular age. In fact, under the spell of Fr. George Florovsky’s call for this sort of path to renewal, I am so convinced of it that I’ve included here in the Director’s Desk two pieces from my dissertation. I offer them to you as a way to help you better understand Fr. Florovsky and his influence on me and the mission of Eighth Day Institute. I offer them to help you capture more clearly the driving impulse behind all of the work at Eighth Day Institute…including this particular Symposium and the coming second annual Florovsky Week (June 5-8).

As I write this, it is the feast day of St. Anthony the Great (d. 356). He is one of my great heroes. He was the first hero I ever presented at the Hall of Men, way back on November 20, 2008. His icon sits on our makeshift iconostasis—the fireplace mantle at our headquarters, the Ladder. He was the hero of our second Symposium festal banquet. I’ve read the story of his life by St. Athanasius many times, with many different people, and I look forward to reading it many more times. If there ever was an early Christian life that should be made into a Hollywood movie, it would be St. Anthony’s. All of that said to begin ending this Symposium reflection by connecting Anthony to our theme.

Asceticism – literally athletic training for the spiritual life—is too frequently perceived to be an unhealthy attitude toward and treatment of the body. After spending twenty years of what we would call hard-core asceticism while enclosed in an abandoned fort—serious fasting, continual prayer, singing the Psalms, signing the cross, combatting demons, etc. —you would imagine the body of St. Anthony would be frail and emaciated. But in St. Athanasius’ account we read that his friends “were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat from lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but he was just as they had known him before his withdrawal.” Asceticism, then, is actually a pathway to transfiguring the body.

But asceticism isn’t just about the body. It’s also a ladder of divine ascent. It’s how we conquer our passions, thereby opening the way for a deeper union of erotic love between the human and the divine. This is the message of that most sublime, nuptial poem in scripture: the Song of Songs. Check out the section “the Fathers” to learn how the Fathers interpreted this book. It’s also the message of St. Paul’s eloquent—but controversial for 21st century folks who can’t help but breathe the poisonous air of our secular age—passage in Ephesians on the sacrament of marriage, which according to Paul is “a great mystery” because he isn’t just speaking about the marriage of male and female but about “Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32). Be sure to check out the section “the Tradition”, which contains the Orthodox marriage service, and the essay by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in “the Essays”, which provides a beautiful reflection on that service.

As is my annual custom, I’ll end this opening piece with the message of two Fathers, one ancient and one living:

Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.   ~Pope Benedict XVI

The most intense of pleasurable activities (I mean the passion of erotic love) is set as a figure at the very fore of the guidance that the teachings give: so that by this we may learn that it is necessary for the soul, fixing itself steadily on the inaccessible beauty of the divine nature, to love that beauty as much as the body has a bent for what is akin to it and to turn passion into impassibility, so that when every bodily disposition has been quelled, our mind within us may boil with love, but only in the Spirit, because it is heated by that “fire” that the Lord came to “cast upon the earth.”   ~St. Gregory of Nyssa

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Feast of St. Anthony the Great
Anno Domini 2019, January 17


*This is the introduction in Synaxis 6.1: The Symposium Journal, to be released at the 2019 Symposium.

**Click here to register for the Symposium.

***New Eighth Day Members at the Patron or Pillar level attend Symposium free, plus you receive an auto-subscription to both annual editions of Synaxis (Symposium Journal and Florovsky Journal), plus the annual Eighth Day Books & Culture, the annual Microsynaxis (Eighth Day events in print), and the quarterly Catechetical Word from the Fathers. Click here to join the community of Eighth Day Members today!

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Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

 

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